In Lancaster County, the gap between wages and rents is becoming a chasm.

The estimated average wage for renters here is $13.24 an hour. But a person would have to earn 44 percent more — $19.12 — to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in the county, according to the latest report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

That “affordability gap” was half as wide, 22 percent, in 2009, the year after the great recession began. It has been growing ever since.

The figures, which are based on federal data, come from the coalition’s annual report, titled “Out of Reach.” It analyzes affordability at the national, state and county level; the online version includes extensive interactive data. 

The coalition’s threshold for affordability is a standard one derived from federal policy: To be considered affordable, housing should consume no more than 30 percent of income.

Lancaster County

In Lancaster County, someone earning the $7.25 minimum wage would need to work 84 hours a week to afford a typical one-bedroom rental, the report shows.

Bob Thomas, president of Tabor Community Services, said the data doesn’t surprise him. For some of Tabor’s clients, rent eats up more than 70 percent of their earnings.

“We see it every day ... how much they struggle,” he said.

Many work two or three jobs, he said, and they’re not looking for a handout. The housing market is just that tough, especially at the low end, he said.

The report pegs the monthly fair market rent of a 2-bedroom apartment in Lancaster County at $994. That’s in line with rates advertised on Craigslist, which on Thursday was showing local 2-bedroom apartments for prices ranging from $750 to $1,800.

Impact on workforce

Local business leaders and community advocates have sounded the alarm repeatedly about the county’s extremely tight housing market.

Unless things change, it could “render affordable housing all but impossible” and “significantly impair” efforts to attract and retain the workforce that local businesses need, Lancaster Chamber President Tom Baldrige wrote in an LNP column in December.

“It’s really about creating a community where things are equitable,” said Vanessa Philbert, household stability impact team leader at the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.

Efforts are under way to address the problem. CAP belongs to the Coalition to Combat Poverty, set up to implement the “One Good Job” plan, which aims to cut Lancaster city poverty in half by 2032.

Affordable housing benchmarks are part of the comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy, and CAP and other coalition nonprofits are collaborating to acquire blighted properties and renovate them as affordable rentals.

When housing is far from jobs, that makes transportation yet another barrier to economic self-sufficiency, Philbert said.

The “One Good Job” report calls on municipalities to overcome “‘not in my backyard’ attitudes” and reform their zoning to allow affordable housing near major employers.

County comparisons

On a dollar basis, the gap between Lancaster County renters’ wages and its “housing wage” — the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom rental — is $5.88.

Among neighboring counties, that’s second only to Chester County, where the gap is $6.34.

On a percentage basis, Lancaster’s 44-percent gap ranks second by a hair to York County, at 45 percent.

For the U.S. and Pennsylvania as a whole, the affordability gap is about 31 percent, the housing coalition’s report said.

Pennsylvania’s housing wage of $19.53 is the 20th highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the report says. It calculates the U.S. housing wage at $22.10, versus an average renters wage of $16.88.

There isn’t a single jurisdiction in the U.S. where a minimum-wage worker working 40 hours a week can afford a two-bedroom apartment, the report says.

While acknowledging there has been some wage growth recently, the report says it hasn’t matched the rise in rents. Income inequality is growing, and the fastest-growing occupations are disproportionately low-wage, the report says.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition calls for increasing federal support for housing programs. In contrast, it says the Trump administration’s proposed FY19 budget would “lead to the largest reduction in affordable housing and community development investments in decades.”

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